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Apple sued in Apple TV wireless audio patent clash

Allegedly poached rival's staff

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A little-known maker of wireless media players is suing Apple, alleging the Mac maker not only used its technology without permission but poached staff to do so more easily.

EZ4Media this week filed a complaint against Apple in the US District Court of Northern Illinois. It said Apple's Apple TV set-top box, the Airport Express WLAN extender and various Macs all infringe a quartet of patents it holds that centre on streaming audio over a wireless network.

The named US patents are 7,130,616, 7,142,934, 7,142,935, and 7,167,765, but we note that the final three are all headed 'Audio converter device and method for using the same', have the same abstract and are therefore clearly variations on a theme.

All four were files by one Craig M Janik and assigned to Universal Electronics. The filings go back to 2001, and were granted as patents in 2006 and 2007.

EZ4Media enters the picture in March 2008, when it acquired the patents from Universal Electronics. It makes a wireless HD media player, EZFetch, that uses the UPnP and DLNA standards to grab content from devices connected to the network. Similar gadgets are available from a range of suppliers, from Apple to Netgear, and have been for some time.

EZ4Media's beef is that not only do the named Apple products incorporate technology and processes outlined in the patents it got from Universal Electronics, but that Apple hired three UE employees in Q2 2005, just over a year before it showed off the Apple TV.

The plaintiff states this "was commercially introduced in September 2006", though we'd add that Apple TV didn't go on sale until 2007, and at the time of its introduction it was shown as a gadget codenamed 'iTV' that Apple would release the following year.

Whatever, "each of these employees had access to UEI's confidential and proprietary information and left UE for Apple within 30 days of each other", claims EZ4Media.

One of the three, Nick Kalayjian, told Information Week he did not work on the Apple TV. He's since left the Mac maker and now works for 'leccy car company Tesla.

For its part, EZ4Media wants to court to give it "damages adequate to compensate it for the infringement that has occurred, but in no event less than a reasonable royalty".

Apple's not alone in facing EZ4Media's wrath: since acquiring the UE patents, it has filed similar lawsuits against Logitech, Netgear, D-Link, Samsung, Pioneer, Yamaha, D&M Holdings and Denon, all makers of networkable audio streaming kit. It has since settled with Samsung out of court.

That suggests it's not been inspired by IBM's legal action against its one-time employee Mark Papermaster after he quit to run Apple's iPod and iPhone engineering operation. IBM contends that, by joining Apple, Papermaster violated an agreement reached with his former employer not to work with the competition.

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